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Physicist Edward Witten, on the trail of universal truth Interview with the Genius

February 12, 1995|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,Sun Staff Correspondent

He stops, then starts again, casually tacking onto his statement an appraisal of the impact that "striking prediction" had on him. "In general, it may have been one of the most thrilling intellectual insights of my life. And it influenced me because it did show something about what the future of theoretical physics should be."

Still, there were problems with string theory, problems of mathematical inconsistencies. By 1984, however, there was enough evidence to demonstrate that such inconsistencies could be eliminated in string theory. It was the final step in Dr. Witten's conversion. Pronouncing it "my life's calling," he began to concentrate on the theory he says "will dominate physics for the next 50 years."

Where's the proof?

But even with the final tying together of the subatomic forces with gravity, string theory has its doubters and skeptics.

Partly this has to do with the extreme difficulty of the mathematical framework underlying the theory.

"Much of his recent work has been mathematical," says renowned Harvard physicist Sidney Coleman. "And a lot of the math stuff Ed has done in the last 10 years is just beyond me. I wouldn't know a Donaldson invariant if it hit me in the head."

Another criticism is that string theory is only a theory; it has no experimental evidence to back it up. At the moment there is no particle accelerator that comes even close to being able to experimentally test the energies and distance scales involved in string theory. Some say it may never be possible to experimentally test this theory.

Such skepticism is of no concern to Dr. Witten. "Oh, I kind of chuckle at that kind of thing," he says. "There were loads of people who predicted in the '30s you could never find gravity waves, you could never find black holes or neutron stars or neutrinos -- just to mention a few. They were all considered science fiction. I think it's very shortsighted when people make such statements."

He smiles. "Some people are disappointed that the problems haven't all been solved already. What they have trouble understanding about string theory is that it really is a level of understanding of nature that's completely different from what's existed in the past. String theory has magical properties that we're far from really understanding."

He stops, thinks of a way to convey exactly what he means: "One of the leading Italian string theorists was said to have said that string theory was a piece of 21st-century physics that fell by chance into the 20th century. And that's always been my position."

Still, he says he has not always been so certain of his own judgments. "I think one of the hardest things is to have confidence in your judgment about what's important. It's often happened to me that what I thought was really exciting wasn't necessarily considered really exciting by the people around me. Especially in the early stage of my career. But I have learned the hard way over the years that I have my judgments about what's significant in physics. And I've found out over the years that it's best to trust them."

'A basic purity'

What emerges finally from the circle of family and friends and those who know Edward Witten is this:

He is a man both loved and respected. Part of the respect, of course, is linked to his singular accomplishments. But another part is linked to something deeper: to the uncompromised, almost childlike response to life that still exists in him.

"There is a basic purity about this person," says his former teacher Kenneth Greif. "A kind of gentility and sweet simplicity about him that is very endearing."

One senses that those who know and care about Edward Witten are protective of him. Not of the theoretical physicist but of the endearing person who still wants to play bridge with his Baltimore aunts, who still makes an effort to know all of his cousins' children, who still worries a lot about hurting other people's feelings.

Still, it seems appropriate to let the learned theorist, not the endearing person, have the last word. Or, in this case, words. They are: truth and beauty. He uses them to explain the rewards of his work.

"Whether you think of them yourself or learn about them as a result of the work of others, good ideas -- really good ideas -- in math and physics are just much more beautiful than what you meet in other walks of life," Dr. Witten says.

"And part of the beauty of math and physics is that they're universal. If there are other civilizations in other galaxies, they discovered the same math we discovered -- because it's true. They might organize it differently but they've discovered the

same truth."

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